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By: oraymw, Oraymw
Feb 13 2015 2:45pm
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Welcome to another installment of Ars Arcanum, the MTGO numbers-based limited series. This installment is a draft overview for Fate Reforged, Khans of Tarkir, Khans of Tarkir limited (FKK). I've watched over one thousand matches of FKK draft on MTGO, gathered data from the games, crunched the numbers, and analyzed the data. As always, I’ll take a look at the speed of the format, the popularity and win rates of the main color combinations, and the key principles of how to draft the format.

Adding a small set to a large draft environment is always fascinating. It's a puzzle to figure out how much of the format will change, and how much will remain the same. Khans of Tarkir was a fabulous draft format, probably my favorite draft format ever, and I was nervous about how the format would change with the addition of Fate Reforged. One of the things I realized right off the bat is that the general power level of Fate Reforged cards is much higher than that of cards in Khans of Tarkir, and that is true at pretty much every rarity level. There's also a slight reduction in fixing, along with a reduction cards that can be played for colorless mana, and a significant increase in the number of cards with two identical colored mana symbols in the cost. These are the hardest sets to figure out; underpowered sets have a less volatile impact on the format than powerful sets. And since MTG drafting is such a dynamic system, it only takes a few small changes to creating format warping consequences.

It's important to keep the dynamic nature of draft formats in mind when you read any kind of statistical study of MTG. My biggest worry whenever I write one of these articles is that people will take the data too seriously. My goal is not to provide a definitive study of the power of certain strategies through the other format, and it's important not to look at this article as a set of numbers that will constantly remain true. This is a very detailed and granular look at the data from a small time frame of the format, specifically the first week that the format was on MTGO. By the time this data is published, the numbers will be outdated, and you won't be able to count on them. Furthermore, the dynamic nature of the format means that even a slight shift in how people draft decks can create wide-reaching repercussions through all the other decks. For this reason, I like to focus my analysis on the principles that are driving the numbers.

One of the major strengths of these articles is that I have personally watched all of the games that are used in the study. This means that in additional to simply looking at the numerical survey that these studies generate, I'm also able to figure out the key principles that drive the format, and that are generating the numbers that we'll see in this study. The downside to this strategy is that the samples aren't the kind of big data samples that you could get from other methods. (The other major downside is that it takes a lot of time... but I guess I'm a glutton for punishment). That's why it's important to not get caught up too much in the numbers; while I've gathered a significant sample for the purposes of this article, it's critical to not make too broad of assumptions about what these numbers mean.

With that said, let's take a look at what data we have!


Ending Turns of FKK Draft

Ending Turns of FKK Draft as Compared with Sets on Average

Ending Turns of FKK Draft as Compared with Triple KTK Draft

I always start my analysis off with a look at the speed of the format. When I first started these articles, I quickly learned that the format's speed informs every other aspect of the draft. In my KTK Draft Overview, I showed that KTK draft was significantly slower than the average draft format. This was partly due to the multicolor nature of the format, also due to morph being the central mechanic, and also because there were just so many defensive creatures. In my Fate Reforged Spoiler Analysis, I predicted that while the format would remain slow relative to the average, that it would probably speed up relative to KTK draft. Based on the numbers in the charts above, it looks like I hit the nail right on the head. While I hate to toot my own horn (this is not true; I have no shame), I'm certainly quite proud of how predictive my analysis of a format's speed has ended up being over the past few years.

In KTK, our most important turns were nine and ten, which were basically tied for the most common ending turns, and there was as significant right shift as compared with an average format. While there is a demonstrable difference between the KTK and FKK draft formats, it's important to note that the two formats have more in common with each other than they do with other formats. In the comparison chart, we see that FKK drafts spike at turns eight and nine, with a sharp drop off to turn ten. We also see significantly more games ending on turn six, though it can be a little difficult to notice the turn six difference on the chart. We also see the numbers for the late game shifted a little to the left; FKK has more games ending on turns eleven and twelve, but that difference is easily made up by a significant short in the numbers for turn thirteen. The inclusion of Fate Reforged represents a significant shift of nearly an entire turn faster than the KTK draft format in typical games.

There are quite a few commons that contribute the most to this shift in speed. Creatures like Aven Surveyor, Goblin Heelcutter, or Sandsteppe Outcast all put efficient bodies on the field while making it harder for your opponent to block. There is also a cycle of relatively efficient removal like Bathe in Dragonfire, Whisk Away, and Sandblast that all allow you to press your advantage in ways you weren't able before the release of Fate Reforged. These inclusions work together with a general increase in power among the creatures as a whole to make a format that forces players to be more aware of the early game.

This change in speed has a huge impact on the decks that we'll see in the rest of this analysis. The influence of KTK is still the most important factor in the format, but this shift forward in speed has changed the way that players have to approach this format in a lot of different ways. This certainly does not mean that the only viable decks are aggressive decks, but it does mean that midrange and control decks need to take more steps to increase their defensive speed so that they don't get overwhelmed by the aggressive decks.


Popularity of Clans in FKK Draft

Popularity of Enemy Color Pairs in FKK Draft

Popularity of Allied Color Pairs in FKK Draft

I was really unhappy with this section of my last draft overview. When I collected the data for the article, I had focused on analyzing the clans, so I had separated all of the decks according to the clan that they were in. However, I didn't make the data granular enough to distinguish between Abzan decks that were base WB, WG, or BG. After lots of comments and some reflection, I realized that this was a major flaw in the data, and I decided to revamp the way that I collected the data in for this study. This time, I paid attention to the decks, and I created a separate column for each deck to track the base two-color combination for the deck, if it had one.

This is important for the charts above. The first chart shows us the popularity of the five clans, but the second two charts show us the popularity of the two-color base combinations for each of those decks. For example, nearly 16% of decks were Orzhov based decks. Some of these were Abzan decks, and some of these were Mardu decks. This creates a different texture to the data, and essentially gives us two vantages points from which we can understand what is happening in the format.

The most popular decks in the format are Abzan and Sultai, which are our two slow decks. These two decks together account for about 37% of the format, or a little bit more than 1/3rd of the decks at any given table. This is expected. As the KTK draft format evolved, people realized that the format was pretty slow, and you saw the metagame evolve to reflect this. By the time Fate Reforged entered the format, slow decks had become much more popular in KTK draft, and they had been pushed to dominate the late game, on the flip side there were many drafters who were focusing on a counter strategy to those decks by drafting aggressive Mardu and Jeskai decks that were trying to take advantage of the slow decks. These two major strategies were mostly ported over to the FKK format.

Basically, this first popularity chart shows us that in the first few weeks that the format has been around, people have basically been drafting FKK as if it were still triple KTK. This makes sense, because KTK is still 2/3rds of the format, and most of the things that were true in triple KTK are going to remain true. However, we'll see that the format has undergone some significant changes, and that it's essential to adapt to this new environment.

In the second pair of charts, we can see which two color combinations were the most popular. With the exception of Izzet, all of the enemy color pairs were drafted more frequently than the allied color pairs. Izzet is the odd guild out; blue and red were the two least popular colors in this study, and Izzet decks are made up of both of those colors. Red appears to be the color that people are avoiding, while white, black, and green are the places that everyone wants to be. It is especially curious that both Azorius and Selesnya were drafted more frequently than Izzet. Apparently people drafting Jeskai would much prefer to be base WU or base RW than base UR, which makes sense. White is the color with a solid creature base.

Again, the popularity of the two color pairs makes sense based on what we already know from the triple KTK format. WB warriors is a great archetype, and BG attrition decks using Savage Punch and Woolly Loxodon forms the other biggest pillar of the format.

Let's move on to talk about how these decks performed.


Match Win Rates of Clans in FKK Draft

Match Win Rates of Enemy Two Color Pairs in FKK Draft

Match Win Rates of Allied Color Pairs in FKK Draft

This is where we start to see a major departure from Triple KTK draft. Where KTK had Abzan as the best deck in the format, FKK appears to have a tie between Sultai and Mardu, and Abzan is at the bottom of the pile.

The people drafting FKK can largely be divided into three groups. The first is the group that figured out that Abzan was the best deck in KTK and that the format was slow, and they started drafting FKK in basically the same way that they drafted triple KTK. They build grindy decks that are optimized for the late game. There are a lot of these players, which explains why Abzan and Sultai scored so highly in the popularity section. The second group are the players who came into FKK realizing that the format had sped up a significant amount, and they tried to take advantage of the people who were still drafting the kinds of decks that would be good in triple KTK. These are the reactionaries, and they're the ones that jumped on Mardu and Jeskai right when FKK hit MTGO. The third group are the counter-reactionaries. They are the players that knew the format would accelerate, but instead of building their decks to beat the people who were in the old mindset, they built their decks to beat the people in the new mindset. These are the people that were drafting Sultai.

I'm going to talk about what makes Mardu and Sultai stand out so much in this format, but before I do, it's important to highlight the perfect storm that combines to drive down Abzan's win rate in this study. The first factor is that many of the people playing Abzan decks did not account for the changes in the format, and so they were the least prepared for the decks they faced in the first week of the format's existence. It's very possible that these people could have built Abzan decks that would have performed more optimally in FKK, so it's hard for me to believe that this win rate for Abzan reflects where the deck will be in a few weeks when people understand FKK better. Another big problem is that Abzan is the most drafted deck by a fair margin. It's highly likely that its win percentage is being driven down by this overdrafting.

However, there is another factor that is even more painful for Abzan decks. The main strategy of these decks is to set up defenses in the early game, and then use large creatures to overwhelm their opponents in the late game. A lot of the power of Abzan lies in its ability to leverage Outlast creatures to power go tall in the late game and overpower their opponent's creatures. The problem is that there are several commons in FKK that make this much less tenable. The main culprits are Sandsteppe Outcast, Aven Surveyor, Goblin Heelcutter, and Typhoid Rats. Sandsteppe Outcast allows a white player to drop a 2/1 that can trade with morphs in the early game, while also getting a 1/1 flyer that can get by Abzan's ground defenses. Abzan was always weak against evasive creatures, and having such a powerful and ubiquitous creature at common makes it much harder for Abzan to establish defenses in the midgame. Aven Surveyor is especially good against the Abzan deck. It comes down and either wipes out all the counters that have been built up on an outlast creature, or it puts an expensive green creature back in hand, for a significant tempo loss. On top of this, it also provides a consistent source of evasive damage that is hard for the Abzan deck to deal with. Goblin Heelcutter is a similar problem for Abzan; it's very difficult for an Abzan deck to Outlast a creature and still have enough shields for a surprise Heelcutter adding three power to the board and negating one of their blockers. Heelcutter is especially good when your opponent finally hits enough mana for a large creature, and you just ignore it. Typhoid Rats has been consistently overperforming for me, especially against Abzan and green decks in general. Suddenly I can trade for their Outlasted creature that they've dumped 10 mana into with only one card and one mana.

These aren't the only problems for Abzan. There is also a much higher amount of removal spells at common that are effective against the deck in Bathe in Dragonfire, Sandblast, Whisk Away, and Reach of Shadows. Abzan also benefited greatly from the relatively flat power between the commons and rares in Khans of Tarkir. Fate Reforged introduces an entire host of difficult to deal with bombs that can take over a game all by themselves, and players are simply more likely to draw those cards against Abzan. Finally the cycles of uncommon and rare dragons introduce a bunch of high powered evasive creatures for which Abzan simply doesn't have enough tools.

None of these factors by themselves would be enough to knock Abzan so far down in win rate. But all of the factors combined makes for a particularly hostile environment for Abzan at the moment. However, I fully expect players to adjust their strategies with the deck over the next few weeks, and I don't think that it will remain this far down the standings.

The deck that I'm currently highest on in the format is Sultai. It's neck and neck in win rate with Mardu, and I'm going to talk about Mardu a little more farther down when we dig further into the win rates of the two color decks. Sultai was generally regarded as one of the worst clans in Khans of Tarkir until late in the format after Gerard Fabiano's spectacular win at GP Baltimore. One of the things that made Sultai appealing late in the triple KTK format was that it had so many value cards that it was especially good at beating Abzan in the long game. When Aggro decks started to be drafted less frequently towards the end of the format, Sultai was well-poised to make a strong run.

When I saw the spoiler for Fate Reforged, I thought that Sultai was going to see a major dropoff. It was one of my favorite decks to draft by the end of Khans of Tarkir since it was so good against the most popular deck, but I could tell that the format had become much more aggressive, and I knew that those decks had always been the worst matchups for Sultai in triple KTK. I was pleasantly surprised to see these numbers coming in with Sultai performing so admirably.

I attribute this to a handful of important cards. Aven Surveyor is a card I've talked about quite a bit already, but it's also a huge boon for the Sultai deck. It allows the deck to play out a creature that can mostly stabilize the game in the midgame and then block and trade with a creature, or it can come down on a stabilized board and then provide a consistent evasive threat. I think it's the best common in the set, with Standsteppe Outcast and Goblin Heelcutter coming in close behind. Typhoid Rats is another important card that we've already discussed. For one mana, it comes down and shuts down most players offenses right from turn one. When it does eventually trade, it just provides fodder for Sultai's delve spells. Sultai Skullkeeper fills a similar role by coming down early, powering up delve in the mid game, and trading with a 2/2. But the two cards that really change the game for Sultai are Sultai Emissary and Jeskai Sage. Neither of these two cards are particularly high picks, and a Sultai deck should be able to pick up multiples in this slot. The key thing is that they are incredibly effective against aggro decks. This format has a shortage of two drops compared with most formats, so these guys fill an essential slot in the mana curve. But what makes them special is that they can often shutdown early game offenses by themselves when the really aggressive decks are trying to get ahead on the curve. When they can trade with a creature, it makes it impossible for your opponent to attack, because they can't afford to trade a card for either of these creatures. When they don't threaten to trade, they still provide a speed bump that returns your card and lets you dig for other cards to stabilize the game. Finally, Sultai also gains a lot from the relative lack of Delve cards in Fate Reforged. Where Khans of Tarkir had stiff competition in the Delve slots, the only Delve card at common that the Sultai deck even wants is Gurmag Angler, and the uncommons with Delve in FRF aren't even that special. This means that you'll pick up fewer Delve cards in a Sultai draft, but you'll have more enablers, which makes each of those Delve cards even stronger. Treasure Cruise is better now than it's ever been (in limited).

The combination of all these cards makes Sultai a formidable reaction against the Mardu decks that have performed so well at the beginning of the format, and I think that Sultai will only get better as people realize that they need to build decks that are prepared to beat the aggressive Mardu decks.

One of the advantages that I have when I put together this data is that I see how the numbers are changing as the sample gets larger and larger. For this study, I noticed one particularly strange thing happening with Sultai in particular. After the first three days of data collection, I'd made it about halfway to my goal of total matches, and Sultai's win rate was just below 50%. It wasn't until I gathered the data over the next three days that Sultai's win rate started to move up more and more. Part of this is natural to expect at the sample becomes large enough to be significant, but this change in win rate was especially dramatic. It was also surprising since it was a very popular deck, which meant that I had already gathered a significant number of data points for the deck. I've include a chart below that shows the difference in these numbers. Keep in mind that the number final number reported in the charts above are probably more representative of Sultai's strength as a deck than the chart you'll see below.

Normally I wouldn't worry to present this kind of chart, because the significance of these studies depends on presenting the entire sample together to be statistically significant. This kind of chart can be a little bit deceptive if the samples on each half are too small. However, Magic limited formats are also dynamic systems with ever evolving metagames. The win rates of decks in a format are never at some kind of constant that you can just find by gathering an absurdly large sample. A limited format's metagame will change from day to day, and it is especially volatile in the first few days of the format. In this study, the first half of the sample came three days after the release of the format, and the second half of the sample came over the next five days after that. It seems that there was a shift in the format with Sultai specifically as people adjusted to the new set.

This supports the theory I presented above that Mardu players enjoyed a lot of success by preying on players that weren't used to the new format, while Sultai players were finding success as a counter-reactionary deck against the Mardu decks that were gaining popularity as the format developed. I have no idea what this means for the format going forward, since there simply aren't enough data points to give use an idea of any kind of trend, but it does make me wonder if Sultai will become stronger as the metagame develops over the next few weeks. I don't know if it will, I can't even say that I predict that it will, but it is something that I'll be keeping my eye on personally.

I promised earlier in the article that I would take some time to focus on Mardu. Understanding Mardu is difficult, because it really is not best understood as a clan. Sultai and Abzan are different because they are both decks that are strong in the late game, which means that when you build a Sultai or Abzan deck, you can lean a little bit harder on powerful multicolor cards, because you can put in the defensive cards that will get you to the late game and find your fixing naturally. Mardu is an aggro clan, and this puts a heavier burden on the deck to stay as close to being a straight two color deck as possible.

The strongest version of the Mardu deck is the aggressive WB Warriors deck, and I think that it is clearly the strongest deck in the format. Mardu decks that are based around RB creatures or RW tokens aren't nearly as strong, but the Orzhov deck is probably the most dominant single archetype in the format, and it changes the way that everyone else has to draft.

What makes this especially difficult to analyze is that many of the WB aggro decks are actually Abzan decks. Most Abzan decks are built around slow attrition strategies, and those are the ones that performed so poorly in this study, but an Abzan deck that is splashing green around a core of WB warriors is also one of the strongest decks in the format. Orzhov manages to maintain an exceptional win rate despite being the most highly drafted two-color base in the format. In fact, there are more Orzhov based decks in the format than all the Temur decks combined.

Orzhov was a great deck in Khans of Tarkir, and a lot of its strength comes from those two packs. It's even better now than it was in KTK since there are fewer ways for Abzan decks to defend against an early onslaught, but Orzhov also picks up quite a few great tools in Fate Reforged. One of the biggest shifts in the format is that Fate Reforged doesn't have any morph creatures, which is a huge hit for most decks in the format. However, Orzhov was always a deck that relied less on morph creatures, so this hit just benefits the deck. Sandsteppe Outcast and Sultai Emissary are both pretty good additions to the deck, since both of them provide bodies that are warriors, and they combo quite well with the strategy. Harsh Sustenance is a particularly important common for the deck, giving it a powerful removal spell that can also be a potential game ender. But the biggest gain the deck gets is a particularly powerful list of uncommons. Battle Brawler, Elite Scaleguard, Lightform, Orc Sureshot, and Valorous Stance are all potential first pick uncommons that are particularly strong in the WB warriors deck. None of the other two color combinations get such a potent combination uncommons.

Lots of people have commented on the high powered nature of the rare and mythics in Fate Reforged, and I can confirm that these cards have a dramatic impact on the format. There are also a few uncommons that can compete with the quality of the rares, but there aren't a ton of them. The one color combination that gets enough power uncommons to consistently compete with the rares in WB.

In my mind, this format breaks down along two key lines; the WB aggro players and the Sultai control players. These are the two best decks in the format, and the rest of the players are trying to figure out how to navigate around those strategies. There are certainly powerful decks in down other draft lines, but these are the two archetypes that players can consistently find, even when they are fighting a little bit with the other drafters at the table. The average Orzhov and Sultai decks are stiff competition for the good versions of the other decks at the table, and they are the pillars of the format.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Thanks again for reading. Here are my conclusions and recommendations for the format.

1.      While FKK remains a slower format than the average set, it is fast relative to triple KTK draft and represents a significant shift forward in the format's speed.

2.      Many players have not adjusted their strategies to the format's new speed. This provides an opportunity for players to take advantage of the situation by drafting aggressive strategies.

3.      Fate Reforged packs are simply more powerful than Khans of Tarkir packs, and this is true across all the rarities, but it is especially true for the Rare and Mythic Rares, which are a significant step above the cards in the rest of the format for power level.

4.      WB Warriors is the strongest archetype in the format. It is an aggressive strategy that gained several commons and uncommons that are more powerful than the cards around them.

5.      Abzan took a major hit from a variety of factors, most important of which is the inclusion of several commons in Fate Reforged that are particularly well-suited to grindy decks that are trying to go tall instead of wide.

6.      Sultai has taken the slot of the dominant control deck in the format. It gains several commons that are particularly good as a reaction against the increase of aggressive decks. The Sultai cards in Khans of Tarkir also gain more value since there is less competition for the Delve slots in the deck.

As always, you can follow me on twitter @oraymw for updates about articles. I’ve also put up a Tumblr account at http://oraymw.tumblr.com/where I post links to my articles. You can go there and subscribe to the RSS feed, and then you’ll be able to get updates whenever a new article goes live.

Ars Arcanum Archive




Multi color decks by bdgp009 at Sat, 02/14/2015 - 09:10
bdgp009's picture

I have draft a lot of FKK release and in the first week all my opponents are aggresive type of deck. I won three with an izzet, a temur and a Jeskai deck. But on my last draft I lost to a guy that has an all color deck and have walls as main creatures. I think it is the most controlling deck i have fought. I don't know if it will still be a good deck after the release but people should note that if they are going to go aggresive make sure that the removals that they will pick can take out the 0/5 walls that might suddenly be blocking you. Tnx for the info. Always good to read your article!

I can attest to the power of by CalmLittleBuddy at Thu, 02/19/2015 - 07:34
CalmLittleBuddy's picture

I can attest to the power of Mardu in this format. Your thought that Sultai may be the way to go got my attention. I only played a few drafts but I have enjoyed this format much more than usual and may continue drafting for a while. I have found that speed does in fact kill. I'm glad to see that my initial read on Abzan being a tougher route to have success with looks to be correct. I play Abzan in constructed and in my first few drafts let my predisposition to it get the better of me.

Great stuff as always.